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NY Court of Appeals Lowers Burden of Proof in Cases of Severe Child Abuse
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On Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals dealt with the matter of burden of proof in cases of severe child abuse and clarified the standard required for establishing severe child abuse in family courts. The ruling can be of significant help to social services agencies in protecting and defending abused children.

Confusion over the meaning of words between the Social Services Law and the state Penal Law had led to a stricter standard of proof than was necessary in cases of severe child abuse. Under the Social Services Law 384-b, to establish severe child abuse it is necessary to prove that a parent acted with “depraved indifference” to the life of a child. In ascribing meaning to the phrase “depraved indifference,” family courts used to apply the meaning used in state Penal Law, in which the phrase means total disregard for human life in the context of reckless acts, and not in the context of intentional crimes.

However, on Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals clarified that when it came to applying the Social Services Law, the phrase “depraved indifference” should apply both in the context of reckless act and in the context of intentional child abuse.


Writing for the unanimous panel, Judge Susan Read observed, “In short, our depraved indifference jurisprudence under the Penal Law has no bearing on whether a child is severely abused within the meaning of Social Services Law § 384-b.”

In the instant case, two young male children of Antoine N, were taken away from their father after their doctor found clear signs of abuse. However, Antoine argued that the social service agency, in this case the New York City Administration of Children’s Services needed to meet the standards established by Penal Law, as regards “depraved indifference” in order to substantiate sever child abuse.

The court did not buy the argument and also observed that under the Family Court Law of New York, judges can also waive requirements for social services agencies to make “diligent efforts” to urge children and parents to mend their relations before beginning proceedings for neglect or abuse.

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Also in the present case, the Court of Appeals upheld the waiver of such requirements by the Family Court because in 1994 he was found to have abused an older son. In the present case, the doctor found he used to whip his 5-year-old son with a wire.

Previous to the present ruling, it was confusing and difficult for social service agencies in New York to prove in Family Court that the abuse or neglect amounted to reckless acts, and were not intentional. An illogical situation where wrongs could not find remedies and if abuse was intentional, then agencies failed in establishing severe child abuse.


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